Is Contemporary Music Important? Why We Have to Study

by Matthew Younglove

Date Posted: April 19, 2017

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The h2 quartet have been very busy and active in the saxophone world as both performers and educators. Comprised of college music professors in Central Oklahoma and Southern Kansas, the group has established themselves as leaders in the American chamber music scene through their high standards of musical quality and commitment to the creation and performance of new repertoire. The WAVE wanted to talk with them about their overall experiences as the award-winning, critically-acclaimed chamber group that h2 has come to be.

The members of the h2 quartet, listed alphabetically, are Geoffrey Deibel, Kimberly Goddard Loeffert, Jeffrey Loeffert, and Jonathan Nichol.

WAVE: Why is it so important to study contemporary music?

Jonathan Nichol: In the scope of musical history, our instrument is quite young, so really our best option to study engaging repertoire is to commission and perform new music. This allows us to generate new art and contribute to the global music community. Through playing new music we, artists, are able to find our own voice and play music that is meaningful to us. Saxophonists need to look forward and consider how we can continue to artistically further our instrument and repertoire. Plus, it is extremely rewarding to work with composers who are alive that we can communicate with to best perform their music. Who knows the direction that music will take over the next fifty years--it is my hope that h2 and all saxophonists will be at the vanguard.

Kimberly Goddard-Loeffert: I think it’s funny that we even have to ask ourselves this question – is contemporary music important? It is vital to study the music of our own time. It is our responsibility to work with living composers, to share their stories and to bring life to their conceptions of their own music, before that opportunity is lost. Particularly as saxophonists, with a much shorter history than other instruments, it is our responsibility to expand the existing repertoire and to try to improve upon it. Brahms was alive and composing during the time of the saxophone and yet we do not have a piece from him – why not? Because we as saxophonists did not take the initiative to make that happen, and it is our duty as professionals in the field to make sure that we don’t let such an opportunity pass the saxophone up in our lifetime.

Jeffrey Loeffert: I understand the question, but I do not really understand the question. Why is it important to read books that were written after 1900? The music of the twenty-first century is relevant to today. Why do we study music of the classical period? Is Mozart still relevant? Of course Mozart is still relevant, but in a different way than in 1791. The irony here is that during Mozart's time, the public thirst for new music was insatiable as evidenced by his compositional volume as well as Leopold's written statements about his very busy adult son. I think that there are negative connotations associated with new music today even though this obviously was not always the case.

There are several reasons for this, one being that we condition our audiences to accept certain types of music, specifically common practice tonal music, as the norm and everything else as a deviation from this. Tonal music is undoubtedly very powerful, which may explain in part why music of the twentieth and twenty-first century often still reflect tonal properties. This does not, however, lessen the value of music that is not written in this language. We must challenge our listeners and our students, which is of course a primary objective of artists and pedagogues alike. This issue regarding how audiences and students receive new music is also the fault of performers. Contemporary music is too often performed poorly because performers did not diligently prepare in the same way they would for music of early periods. Audiences do not want to hear Mozart performed poorly, so why would audiences accept hearing Donatoni performed poorly? This is why it is so important to educate our younger generations of musicians to perform contemporary music at a high level. This is one reason why we are so excited to be in residence at the Cortona Sessions for New Music. We have an opportunity to both champion the music of the twenty-first century and help educate students how to approach this music. We are grateful for this opportunity and see it as a privilege and a tremendous responsibility.

Geoffrey Deibel: The study of contemporary music is vital to the health of our instrument and music in general. Most people don't realize that until very recently, there was no such thing as "standard repertoire" that was performed over and over again. So this practice that we have now, and the culture of the concert hall as museum is actually not the historical norm for music performance. All music used to be new music. I find it astounding that contemporary music is still shunned by a majority of musicians, but I think I understand why: we witnessed an unprecedented rate of change and development in almost every area of our lives over the past 150 years. It's extremely difficult to wrap ones head around these changes, but when you think about it, the music absolutely reflects the upheaval and changes of the times. No one would make the claim, for example, that technology ceased to improve our lives after the steam engine was invented. The problem is that many people have been culturally conditioned to reject what falls outside of a very narrow and specific definition of music. Music, like any art, is supposed to develop, innovate, and imagine new ways to express the complex thoughts and emotions of human beings. So I guess that's my answer: contemporary music helps us understand the world around us and ourselves, and challenges us to think in new ways about the same problems we've always had. And my call to those who still might think they "don't get it." There's nothing to "get" -- just listen!

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